Hee-jin (played by Suh Jung) manages a fishing vacation outfit. I'm not really sure what to call it- there's a bunch of small cabins floating out in the middle of the lake and it looks a little cramped, but apparently there's people out there who are really into fishing and sex. That's right, a significant part of the tourist element at this lake involves prostitution, either from Hee-jin herself or from a moderately far away coffee delivery shop. It's a Korean thing.
Anyway, the actual story involves the relationship between Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik (played by Kim Yu-seok). It's mostly a physical relationship, since Hee-jin never talks. The movie never conclusively determines whether it's because she can't or won't. It's a romantic relationship. One that's frankly not very convincing, given that nobody ever says anything and there's all this prostitution going on everywhere.
I don't hold that against "The Isle"- I'm sure a convincing portrayal of love in these circumstances is possible, but that's simply not the film we're exposed to here. Both Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik are jerks. Now, granted, so is practically every other person in the immediate area, but even by that standard I never liked Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik enough to care about where their relationship was going. Mostly I just felt sorry for all the other people who got wrapped up in all their weird antics. They didn't ask for any of this. Well, I suppose technically they did, but murder wasn't a part of the contract. Even if it's mostly just animals.
On that point as well, I don't have anything against animals being killed on general principle. The problem is that "The Isle" presents these events in a thoroughly petty light. I'm not thinking about why Hee-jin felt the need to kill the frog. I'm thinking, geez Hee-jin, what did the frog ever do to you? I can get wanting to lash out in anger against an unforgiving world, but the mental problems on display here are almost entirely the fault of the main characters themselves.
It's weird looking at "The Isle" in a modern light, because normally I like Kim Ki-duk films. But maybe that's because I've seen a better sampling of the work he's done since then, and from that perspective, this movie is just plain amateurish. The background is too weird to be much of a cultural condemnation, and even the more torturous scenes are frankly passe. Yeah there's fish hooks involved but for the most part we never actually see them.
But even in terms of relationships this simply isn't a very good movie. "Birdcage Inn" predates "The Isle" and is a masterful analysis of the local state of mind for a prostitute. All I know about Hee-jin's mindset is that she's either at or above the level of evil as the clients we're supposed to be viewing unsympathetically. Additionally, the characters are so sex-obsessed that this is the first Kim Ki-duk film I've seen where I can understand why people think he's misogynist. There's much better genre work available than "The Isle" in this day and age, so by all means, skip this movie.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD from YESASIA and Amazon
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Isle""
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